Helen Gym speaks at a mayoral candidates forum in Germantown in January Credit: Cory Sharber / WHYY

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Pa.’s statewide Asian American civil rights and advocacy organization is backing former Councilmember Helen Gym for Philadelphia mayor, leaders are announcing Monday.

The endorsement by the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance isn’t a surprise, but it comes with a major spend. The young political org — of which Gym was a founding board member — will commit around $400,000 toward encouraging people to vote for her in over a dozen languages, API PA Executive Director Mohan Seshadri told Billy Penn.

“She’s always fought for Philadelphia,” Seshadri said, pointing to Gym’s work on public education and housing. “At the end of the day, the issues affecting our communities here in Philly are the issues affecting all of Philly … And we trust Helen to fight for these things and to win these things, because she’s always done that in the past.”

Seshadri called Gym — who’s been active in Philly’s Asian American community for several decades — an “inspiration for so many of us.”

API PA launched ahead of the 2020 election, and its endorsements have generally been of progressive candidates. The 501(c)(4) aims to build “long-term power” for AAPI Pennsylvanians through voter mobilization efforts and advocacy on issues like immigration, labor rights, and language access.

Gym left the organization’s board last fall, per API PA spokesperson Melissa McCleery. If elected, she would be Philadelphia’s first Asian American mayor.

Outside money is expected to play a role for several candidates in this year’s mayoral race. There are no contribution limits for orgs making what are called independent expenditures — election-related spending that can’t be coordinated with campaigns.

Former Councilmember Cherelle Parker and state Rep. Amen Brown are both expected to benefit from political action committee spending, and the PAC For A Better Philadelphia has already funded TV ads promoting grocer Jeff Brown.

Formed in 2020, the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance is a statewide organization that advocates for API communities across Pennsylvania (Courtesy API PA) Credit: COURTESY API PA

Also called social welfare nonprofits, 501(c)(4)s aren’t the same as PACs, but they are allowed to have some involvement in electoral politics, as long as it’s not their “primary activity.” This is generally interpreted to mean that they can use up to 50% of their money on politics. In general, they also don’t need to disclose their donors.

The API PA endorsement process typically involves sending questionnaires to candidates, and sometimes in-person interviews, per Seshadri — but the choice of Gym this year was “very obvious” given her ties.

“She’s from the community,” said Wei Chen, an API PA co-founder and board member who got to know Gym in the late 2000s through her work with the activist group Asian Americans United. “She was an organizer, she was a teacher … she [met] with not just big community leaders.”

Half a million calls and 100,000 mailers

API PA’s $400k to promote Gym’s candidacy will involve knocking over 23,000 doors, making 500,000 calls, sending out between 80,000 and 100,000 mailers, and running ads on digital platforms and in non-English language media outlets, executive director Seshadri said.

Language access is a focus: In-person and phone conversations will happen in 15 different languages, the mailers will be printed in at least four, and digital ads will appear in multiple languages as well.

Around half a million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders live in Pennsylvania, over 20% of whom live in Philadelphia. Nationwide, Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing groups of eligible voters, according to Pew Research Center, and a majority are naturalized citizens. Their political views vary, but they tend to lean Democratic.

Over half of AAPI voters in Pennsylvania said they hadn’t been contacted by either major political party last year, according to the national nonprofit APIA Vote, and 11% said language access was a barrier to them voting.

In Pa. and other states, local grassroots groups have helped fill in some of the gaps.

API PA’s strategies for reaching voters have included engaging people in community spaces, according to Seshadri, like places of worship, Asian grocery stores, and events.

“For the longest time, the gap was just not having the organization, not having the intentionality, not having the resources to accurately and adequately engage our people,” Seshadri said. “And we’re excited to take all of that learning and all of that power that we built over the last couple years and really focus in on Philly this year.”

He noted that API PA looks to endorse candidates who’ll show up for the AAPI community, even if they’re not of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage themselves.

Previous endorsements have included progressive candidates like Rep. Summer Lee for U.S. Congress, and Will Gross and Rep. Liz Fiedler for Pa. House.

Still, Seshadri thinks having a candidate who’s got a “history of advocacy” and is “someone who our people trust,” has the potential to encourage folks to engage with politics and get out the vote among Philly’s AAPI community.

“I can’t overestimate the value of the hope … it brings our people to have a chance to vote for one of our people,” Seshadri said, “and to have a chance to see themselves represented in this way.”

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Asha Prihar

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...